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Activists Look to End Violence in Niger Delta

Activists and academics at a conference in Lagos, Nigeria, say chronic poverty is the main reason behind the cycle of violence in the Niger Delta, the country's major oil-producing region. Participants insist addressing poverty is key to bringing stability to the region.

A large part of the discussions at the conference held by the London-based Royal Institute of International Affairs focused on the new management of the commission responsible for developing the delta. Although the Niger Delta produces most of Nigeria's oil, hardly any of the revenue is invested in the region, which lacks basic infrastructure.

A fellow of the institute who took part in discussions, Michael Peel, said the previous board of the Niger Delta Development Commission had a reputation for being ineffective and corrupt. Although President Olusegun Obasanjo's government has begun to go after corrupt officials, Mr. Peel says it is not enough to prosecute individuals. Systematic problems need to be addressed.

"If Nigerians are going to take the anti-corruption efforts seriously, then there needs to be pursuit not just of individuals, but changes to structural problems. There really is at the moment a lack of transparency about the oil industry, about how money is allocated and spent," he said.

A researcher from the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, Daniel Omoweh, says underdevelopment is the major reason for the violence in the region. He says clashes between armed groups competing for oil revenue and local politicians have killed thousands of civilians over several years.

Mr. Omoweh says the central government must let the people who live in the Niger Delta have a role in development decisions.

"We talk about peace, peace not as in that there's no conflict anymore, but peace in the sense that some of the development needs - the major ones are met and people are empowered to also participate in the development process," he said.

The development commission wants to build bridges and roads in the region, which will also stimulate employment among the local population. But most of the plans are only on paper.

Human rights activists say the government and oil companies must ensure that development is carried out in the region. The activists say the companies also have a responsibility to address the environmental degradation caused by oil exploitation. For several years, oil companies have been targeted in community protests that have disrupted oil production.